where do atlas carpets come from?

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The early 1990s saw a rash of carpets depicting the map of the world – some of which are framed by militaria, some of which include military paraphernalia within the cartographic space. Some, such as this example, remain close to their origins.

In conventional histories of European avant-garde art the Italian arte povera artist Alighiero e Boetti (and here) has often been credited with having triggered the contemporaneous production of Afghan carpets depicting the world map, and even the war carpet genre of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Boetti’s work first came into prominence following the showing of one of his first two Mappa del Mondo (maps of the world) embroideries illustrated in the 1972 Kassel Documenta 5 catalogue, which was curated by Harald Szeemann. Boetti’s work, exhibited in the section titled Individual Mythologies, was (so the story goes) produced in Afghanistan by a team of women from an “embroidery school” in Kabul.

Various recent published accounts (notably that by Luca Cerizza: Alighiero e Boetti: Mappa. Afterall Books, London, 2008) assume that the virtual industry established by Boetti, when the designs for his world maps and his later imagery were outsourced to as many as 500 women embroiderers, first in Kabul, and later in the Afghan refugee camps of Peshawar and surrounding districts, was the stimulus for other forms of innovation – in carpet-making. In reality there is but a single point of coincidence. Just as Boetti’s first coloured-in cartoon of flags drawn in biro on a school wall atlas, (Planisfero politico, 1969) was the design for his first Mappa, so the myriad other printed precedents, both in school rooms in Afghanistan, and in libraries and on walls the world over, have in turn served as the model for images such as this extraordinary example we saw on Tanna last week. No atlas carpets embody any of the Boetti trademark motifs. To the contrary, they are full of their atlas origins.

When you translate the text in carpets such as this you reveal a number of things: In the example above the old Soviet Union is identified as both the “Socialist Soviet Unions of Russia” and the “Federative (sic) Republic of Russia”. Given that the USSR became The Russian Federation in 1991, this would seem to provide a terminus ante quem – the date before which the atlas (and therefore the carpet) could not have been made.

To further bracket the date of the original atlas (from which the carpet was copied) the country of Zaire (which existed from 1971 to 1997) is to be found in a disproportionately small patch of territory in central Africa titled “Zir” – to the east of “Congo” (which is the Republic of the Congo). And so we can deduce that the “cartoon atlas” from which this carpet was made dates from between 1992 to 1997 – the only period in which both Zaire and the FRR coexisted.

And this example also demonstrates, at least in this instance, that the atlas carpets of the 1990s derive from the kind of atlas/poster found in schools – the translation of the text blocks reads: “The Political Map of the World” “The Map no. 14 (or 140)” and in the right hand box such words as: “Guide, Capital, International border, Centre of State, Border of State, Important City, and Main Path”. In the addition international time zones are indicated by the rows of clock faces above and below. Pure atlas. Thanks to MR for the translation.

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One Response to “where do atlas carpets come from?”

  1. From an Italian perspective: a call for an anthropological theory of art « Says:

    […] Sergio Poggianella writes in response to the post below where do atlas carpets come from?: […]

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